LOS ANGELES – When Glendale officials proposed a memorial to "comfort women" – sex slaves who served the Japanese army in occupied countries during World War II – they saw it as a quiet gesture of good will for the city's Korean American community.
The planned statue shows a young girl seated next to an empty chair: a symbolic memorial to the estimated 80,000 to 200,000 women and girls, mostly from Korea, who spent the war in Japanese military brothels serving up to 50 men per day.
But city leaders soon realized that they had stepped into a major international controversy. They've been bombarded with hundreds of angry emails, mostly from Japan, accusing them of falling for "anti-Japan propaganda" and calling the Korean women, many of whom say they were abducted from their homes as teenagers, "liars" and willing prostitutes.
The uproar has left Glendale officials stunned but undeterred. The City Council last week approved the statue despite the opposition.
"A 14-year-old girl doesn't voluntarily leave her village in Korea to go serve the Japanese army – give me a break," said Councilman Frank Quintero, who said he was surprised that such a "low-key" memorial could stoke such fury. "We never intended to kick up a hornet's nest," he said.
Takehiko Wajima, spokesman for the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles, said the government's official position is that the comfort women story "should not be politicized or be turned into a diplomatic issue." Asked who he thought was politicizing it, the city of Glendale or the emailers, Wajima said, "I am not in a position to comment."
Yumiko Yamamoto, the Tokyo woman leading the email campaign, told the Los Angeles Times that she has waged similar battles against memorials elsewhere. She said she's one of "many Japanese mothers" trying to fight the spread of "fabricated Japanese history."
The emails protesting the comfort women's memorial, which have also been addressed to Los Angeles Times editors and reporters, generally don't deny that the brothels existed. Instead, they argue that soldiers from all nations, including the United States, patronize prostitutes during wartime. Any coercion used to staff the Japanese "comfort stations," they say, was committed by unscrupulous Korean pimps – not Japanese officials.
"The girls were sold by their parents to private sex brokers, which is a tragedy," wrote one Japanese man who said he lives in the United States and only identified himself by his pen name, Pakku Rareman. "Or they volunteered to feed their family" during the war, he wrote.
The Japanese government issued a formal apology to the comfort women in 1993. It acknowledged that the Japanese military had established a vast network of brothels and its officers, at times, had a direct role in recruiting women against their will. As a result, the apology said, "a great number of comfort women suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds."
In the last 20 years, however, a growing number of Japanese conservatives have argued that the evidence underlying the government study was thin. In May, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto said the brothels had been a "necessary" part of Japan's war effort and questioned the level of coercion involved.
Within a month, the city of San Francisco rescinded an invitation to Hashimoto for an official visit. The U.N. Committee Against Torture urged Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has also questioned the level of coercion required – to condemn Hashimoto's comments. He did, but not strongly enough to appease international critics.
The backlash in Japan against the accepted version of the comfort women story is fueled by a sense among conservatives that "saying anything bad about the nation's past is some sort of capitulation to conquering foreign powers," said William Marotti, a Japanese history professor at UCLA. They blame the foreign version of events for undermining patriotism, Marotti said.
The new, combative tone coming from Japan has done nothing to silence 86-year-old Kang Il-chuk and others who live in a home for former comfort women outside Seoul.
"I won't just disappear quietly," Kang said in an interview last week with the Times. "Until the day I die, I will raise my voice to fight the Japanese government."
Kang said when she was 15, Japanese soldiers came to her rural home while her parents were out and ordered her to come with them. She wound up on a train to China, where, she said, she spent nearly four years in a military brothel.
Shame kept her from trying to make her way home after the war, she said, and she never saw her parents again. Kang stayed in China, eventually marrying and having two children. She returned to Korea in 2000.
Glendale officials have invited several of the survivors from Korea to the United States at the end of July for the unveiling of their monument.
"It's not about punishing any country," Councilman Ara Najarian said. "This is about commemorating man's inhumanity to man."